On Dice and Mechanics


So, obviously a D&D clone uses a d20 right?

We know there are certain expectations for certain types of games. Cyberpunk uses a d6/d10 system with edge case weirdness. Shadowrun uses giant pools of d6's.  Blades in the dark, old savage worlds, d6. 

But there are problems with those systems. For me; I mean, knock yourself out. 

Cyberpunk uses exploding dice which create weird dead zones in success chances. This is not a big deal. Shadowrun had this cycle of design, where huge pools always succeed -> add limits -> limits are dull ->add edge, and now you're using hero points. Which again, ok, fine.

I mean, they are fine. But I felt memories of when I enjoyed d6's. Original Shadowrun picking up a ton of dice. Song of Blades and Heroes where every choice is a tactical risk. Warhammer 40k, when saving on a 2+. 

I'm not a statistician. I had too many semesters of calculus at 6:30 in the morning in a basement to want to love number play-doh. I'm not afraid of math. But, you know, it's not particularly intuitive for me. I wasn't setting out to create some radical new design. I wanted something understandable, scalable, and most of all fun. I wanted it to work during play.

The normal process of seeing Sinless
and then opening and reading Sinless.
This system was playtested and iterated. I started with the idea of attribute 'pools' that drain during combat. When you use a die from your pool, you lose access until the next round. You also used these pools to defend. Reasonably quickly it got wonky. So we condensed the pools to four, four types of attacks, four types of defenses. Pools built from attributes.

Understandable: I ran a lot of 3e Shadowrun. I have an A4 sized page that is separated into three sections: All of the target number combat modifiers, all of the target number matrix modifiers, and all the target number magic modifiers. In tiny-teensy print. Front and back. It's in a box right now, but I'll gladly take pictures next time I run across it. 

So variable target numbers are right out. 

Gear is a huge, part of the fun is the shopping! Cyberpunk character creation is a shopping spree for gamers. It's fun!

I wanted gear to be involved in the core of play. This would be twofold: mitigating the mechanical importance of gear to the game, and involving gear in the core mechanic.

Players roll a number of dice equal to their skill plus the relevant gear feature.

Just in the realm of guns, that's some great design space. Guns with similar accuracies can vary the other features an—oh, got excited there for a second. Did you know I'm a game designer?

So let's talk about the scope of the mechanics. We don't want something that caps out. I like to run and design games that can last for 100+ sessions. I want solid feeling of advancement without it growing out of control. 

So the player gets to distribute both their expertise and money across the desired features.

They roll dice versus a static target number, more successes is more good.

About that target number though.

Stable Targets

Look, I ran Shadowrun for a decade. It was a lot of work. So I took every step possible to reduce the work on the Agonarch (the person running the game) in Sinless.

Operations are organized into tiers. Veteran runs have a target number of 4+. Professional runs have better trained opponents and more expensive  security measures with a target number of 5+, and Prime runs have military security and the highest levels of response and training for a difficulty of 6+. 

This caused more than one person pause during development. But keep in mind

we're developing a game. If you can suspend your disbelief about the uplifts, magic particle, spirits, and cybertechtronics, but "things are harder when opponent is more powerful" is the straw, then I got nothing for you.

Look at how it works for the Agonarch. It decouples length and opposition from difficulty. Players don't have to slow down to recalculate target numbers. Agonarchs can use the same statistic block and the opponent will be challenging to the players. And it works remarkable well with rolling between 1-XX d6's to accomplish a task. 

Your average uplifted bear mercenary after character creation should get 1ish successes on a prime run on a roll with 8 or 9 dice, or 4ish on a veteran run. (I did a bunch of math, but we don't need to get too far into that now).

That's for the things they do. You know the Punching guy is going to take Cybertechtronic Combat at 6, the Shooting are going to take Firearms 6, hackers will have Computer: Hacking at 6. You want them to be competent. 

But you don't get tested on only the things you do well on an operation. 

Characters improve by spending experience to boost attributes to increase pool sizes, and increase skills up to 6.

Once you reach certain kismet (experience) thresholds (10/20) they can select boons. Boons like, Raise a skill from 6 to 7. Or raise a skill from 7 to 8. Or gain pool resilience.

Oh, right, let's talk about the pools.

Going for a Swim

What I really like about Song and Blades of Heroes is that you decide your relative power and risk. Each unit has an activation threshold. You can roll between 1 to 3 dice, and if you have 2 failures on a roll your turn ends. Look at that decision tree! Do I roll three dice and activate my easy to activate unit and risk a turn end, or do I make some 1 die rolls to activate some non important units. 

So the same pools the characters use during combat to attack are the same pools they use to defend. They spend as many dice from their pools as they wish up to the limit of their skill ranking + gear. 

This is an engaging decision: how far will I extend myself? what are the relevant threats to my pools? Can we focus certain types of attacks to drain prime opponent pools? How many dice can I penalize an opponent with my actions? It creates a constant variable player controlled risk/reward mechanic in combat.

E.g. You can charge to allow you to spend Brawn pool dice to add additional distance to a double move, which allows you to neutralize their firearms advantage if you get within range of the opposition. This is the same resource that allows you to soak damage. 

There are not many modifiers, but you can get bonus and penalty dice rather than numbers, leading to contests over  battlefield resources (Cover, network access nodes, and ley lines).

The combat cadence is similar to Warhammer 40k. Attacks hit, successes are added to weapon damage, target chooses to dodge and soak. Resolution is quick.

Pool resilience are dice that never get exhausted from the pool. This tiered system of acquiring mutually exclusive rewards at these at thresholds and certain mutually exclusive choices during character creation means we avoid the GURPS problem of point based character improvement all ultimately converging at high enough power levels. 

Certain effects and tech can grant rerolls, and mechanically there's a rock/paper/scissors going on between magic/electronic/physical attacks and targets and their respective pools/vulnerabilities.

Beyond the fight 

That just creates a bunch of interesting choices in combat, but that's not all. 

The game contains a series of frameworks that provide a structure for the players to gather information and plan out a heist in whatever way they wish. 

There's a reason Leverage and Blades in the Dark use 'flashbacks' to handle jobs. That is entirely too narrative for me. The joy is sitting there watching the players plan the operation for 3 hours. I didn't want to address the problem by ignoring it.

The problem in those old games was I had to do all the work to set the parameters and scope.  Well, the frameworks do that for you. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are tool, not a directive. There is information about the target site. Players have a limited opportunity to gather information from their assets and skills, and then can use that information while they plan. The process is explicit, their use manifold, and most importantly, fun in play. 

That's not the only way frameworks are used: how to handle character infiltration before/without triggering a fight, Information about how to price contracts the players sign to do operations, how to neutrally arbitrate the players getting targeted by opponents for kidnapping or capture, an entire exciting method of resolving car chases, bricolage to upgrade the van to make a plan come together and more!

Memento Mori

Is it perfect? Almost certainly not. I'm sure someone will rapidly find Sinless's Peasant Rail Gun, but it meets all my criteria. It's fast in play, encourages tactical as well as strategic thinking, and is rich in design space and character growth and development potential. It's also pretty stable, easy for people to understand what their chances are, and the mechanic can be extended to resolve situations that aren't covered by the rules. (You got a lotta nice pools over there buddy. Shame if something would happen to those. Yeah, a real shame.)

I wasn't setting out to reinvent the wheel. I'm not claiming anything in this mechanical system is particularly novel. You get two actions and a reflex action on your turn, for crying out loud. It's pretty straightforward stuff. But it's fun as hell. 

People think it's pretty cool! 

Hack & Slash 

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